The Ironwood Forest

by Ron Harton


The desert ironwood is a familiar tree of the southern California deserts. The Midland Ironwood Forest is the largest concentration of desert ironwood trees (Olneya tesota) in California. It is located in the Palen-McCoy Wilderness area between the Palen Mountains and the McCoy Mountains, a few miles northwest of Blythe, California. One weekend in February, I decided to see this forest in the desert, so I loaded my camping gear in the back of the pickup and took off.

The desert ironwood is a small tree of the Colorado desert region of the Sonoran Desert. It grows from Sonora and Baja California northward along the Colorado River Valley into southwestern Arizona and southeastern California. In some places in that area it is a dominant species. It is most famous for the fact that its wood will not float. The wood of the desert ironwood weighs 66 pounds per cubic foot, making it the second heaviest wood in North America. The only heavier wood is the leadwood tree which grows in southern Florida. By comparison, mahogany weighs 45 pounds per cubic foot.

As I approached the wilderness area, I began to see ironwood trees in the large washes. I tried to get close to the forest by a dirt road leading to Palen Pass from Highway 117. However, my truck is not four wheel drive and I had to turn back due to long stretches of very soft sand. Reluctantly, I drove around through Blythe and drove toward the forest by way of dirt roads off Midland Road. Soon after I passed an old railroad dump area named Inca, a road runner trotted out of a wash and led the way down the road. As I drove, the ironwood trees became thicker and thicker along the washes.

In Palen-McCoy, ironwood trees grow both along the washes and on surrounding land. The largest trees grow in groves along the bottom of the washes, and smaller trees grow over the plains and bajadas. The tree has a gray-green appearance. The leaves look similar to the cat claw or mesquite, and the slender branches have small, sharp spines. The seed pods look like typical legume pods, two to three inches long. In early summer, the desert ironwood bursts into bloom with fragrant lavender-purple and white flowers. The flowers and a red sap which the tree secretes attract hummingbirds and bees. After flowering, new leaves emerge, pushing off the old ones.

I drove to a high point at the end of the McCoy Mountains near an old mine and set up camp. The wilderness area is not clearly defined. I saw no wilderness boundary markers, and only one Arestricted use@ sign which was obviously ignored. There are off road vehicle tracks everywhere in the Palen-McCoy area. From my camp, it was easy to hike out into the forest. The entire valley was green with desert ironwood, palo verde, and even a few coursetia. The coursetia is very similar to the ironwood, but it does not have spines, and it has yellow and white flowers.

As I hiked I experienced the Acan=t see the forest for the trees@ phenomenon. I would see a particularly thick section of trees and hike toward it. When I arrived, the trees looked thicker back the way I came. There always seemed to be more ironwoods somewhere else. I realized that I must be, in fact, in the middle of the forest.

The desert ironwood is an important tree to animal life. The forest in Palen-McCoy is home to rabbits, mice, kangaroo rats, coyotes, kit foxes and a variety of birds. The old limbs of the trees create tangles of brush which provide protection and shade. The seed pods, leaves, and slender branches provide food. Edmund Jaeger writes that during his days of traveling the desert with a mule, he knew his mule would be well fed by morning if he could tie him under an ironwood tree. The tree has also been important to people, too, providing both firewood and food. Native Americans roasted the seeds which are reported to taste like peanuts.

There are some enormous ironwoods in Palen-McCoy. I saw several trees with trunks about three to four feet in diameter. One report says there is an ironwood tree in the forest with a circumference of over fifteen feet. These trees must be hundreds of years old. Unfortunately, desert ironwoods have been illegally cut in this area. Woodworkers prize the wood for its hardness and beautiful deep brown tones. It is very difficult wood to cut and carve, but even so, poaching trees is a problem on these BLM lands.

The desert ironwoods of Palen-McCoy deserve protection. The tree is often taken for granted because it is numerous within its range, but it has a very limited range. It grows only in low elevations where there is no danger of freezing or even frost. The Palen-McCoy area is a wonderful place for car camping and day hikes. Plant and animal life are plentiful. I even found a population of rare Alverson=s pincushion cactus (Coryphantha vivipara v. alversonii). Coyotes sang near my camp each evening. Yet the off road vehicles continue to plow up the fragile desert. One set of recent tracks ground up the bajada directly through the rare cactus.

The Midland Ironwood Forest is a unique area. It gives the visitor a strong sense of place and open space. It is a wonderful, accessible area to explore the diversity of the desert. It needs to be watched over much more carefully. I plan to return in June to see the forest in bloom.